The play Ma Rainey’s contains several characters who wield power over the other, and their circumstances. Power in this instance is an individual who has go the ability to influence another person’s circumstances by their actions or inactions. A person who thus has this attribute in them, gains the advantage of soliciting their partner’s bidding at will by playing into their power over them. Power in a character is an important ingredient in the play as it helps run the plot and sequence of the play by creating both opportunities and conflicts for the progression. In understanding the power play in the play, this paper seeks to establish the characters that hold power over the others and how they gain that power.
The play ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is set on a studio in Chicago in 1927. The plot tells the story of a recording session with Ma Rainey, a popular blues singer, her band and their interactions with their white manager and producer. Ma Rainey and her band members, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee show up at the studio in readiness to make her newest album. The play commences with gossip as the band players chat and gossip while they wait for Ma Rainey. As the play progresses, the tension between the young band player Levee is revealed by his many disagreements with the older band players Cutler and Toledo. Ma Rainey’s character is introduced by her first act in the play, of turning up late for the recording. Her white producer and manager Studyvant and Irvcin respectively, are irate disorient by her actions. The introduction sets the stage for Ma Rainey as one of the power wielders in the play, and one of the characters likely to instigate conflict. The play progresses with arguments, mainly involving Levee, the youngest band member against almost everyone else, which reveals many struggles that the blacks endure at the hands of a racially charged society. Ma Rainey takes to the stage to sing, but her insistence on the introduction being done by her nephew despite his stuttering reveals her willingness to make her voice heard and standing up for the powerless. The conflict in the play is summed up in the last of the play with Levee stabbing Toledo, slightly after engaging in an argument with their producer who shatters his heart by revealing he would not be producing his music.
Characters wielding power in the play
The white producer, Mel Sturdyvant is the embodiment of a capitalistic producer who makes himself rich using Ma Rainey’s music. Ma Rainey on the other hand is aware of this fact and is the other center of power in this play. His power is achieved by his position as the person who facilitates the progression of the artistes working under his label, including Ma Rainey. Sturdyvant demonstrates his power over Irvin, Ma Rainey’s manager, for instance by relegating the task of handling Ma Rainey’s exuberance to him. “Sturdyvant: She’s your responsibility. I’m not putting up with any Royal Highness . . . Queen of the Blues [bull—]!
Irvin: Mother of the Blues, Mel. Mother of the Blues.
Sturdyvant: I don’t care what she calls herself. I’m not putting up with it. I just want to get her in here . . . record those songs on that list . . . and get her out. Just like clockwork, huh?
Irvin: Like clockwork, Mel. You just stay out of the way and let me handle it” (A).
Ma Rainey also wields power attained over both her band members and the white producer and manager. This power is demonstrated in her handling of the recording affair. She wields power over the band by virtue of being their employer. This power is demonstrated when she fires levee, the youngest band member when she insubordinates her. She demonstrates her power over the producer Studyvant and Irvin by having them wait for her arrival to the recording. Further, after she has completed her singing, she reasserts her power over them by having them wait in order to sign the papers granting ownership of the music to the producer. Ma Rainey also shows a power over the male fork in general in the first scene where she seeks her release after being involved in an altercation with a taxi operator. This power is exhibited when she demands that the police officer is informed of her identity. In this instance, she seeks her power from her celebrity status and expects the police officer to empathize with her given her celebrity status. She seems successful in most of her power wielding scenes, however, her success in some instances can be said to be superficial, and granted by some parties in pursuit of individual gain rather than in genuine submission. This fact is demonstrated in the last scene where, at fast she declines to sign the papers sending Sturdyvant and Irvin into a panic and pleading frenzy. Her seeming success at wielding power over them is short-lived since she signs the papers eventually. The individual holding the real power over her is Sturdyvant ultimately. He acquires this power by holding the practical means of making an income from Ma Rainey’s artistic efforts. Indeed, and in reward of his power, Ma Rainey signs the paper transferring her intellectual claim to the song over to him.
Other characters wield power to varying degrees over each other and over their circumstances. The interesting character to observe in this analysis is Levee. He is young and ambitious member of the band with intentions to form his own band in future. Sturdyvant is revealed to have promised him of a recording deal for his music as the play advances. Levee, at the beginning of the movie is seen to hold power over his circumstances. He is young and energetic, talented and has a drive towards realizing his dreams. His confidence in the sure change in his circumstances is revealed in the way he picks arguments with the other band members in attempt at having his voice heard. As the movie progresses, his power over his circumstances is stripped off him. For instance, Ma Rainey sacks him, which indicates he is in no position to dictate his interaction and progress in the band with the power being held by Ma Rainey in this instance. Further, Sturdyvant regresses from his earlier promise to record Levee’s music and informs him that ‘his music is not what the people want’. His future ambition of forming a band is effectively destroyed by Sturdyvant’s revelation thus making Levee’s efforts at holding power over his circumstances in life irrelevant. Levee is so distraught after this instance and stabs Toledo killing him instantly. While his fate for this crime is not revealed in the play, he is the author of his own destruction as it is not plausible how his character would have advanced in the lines he had hoped for after killing Toledo.
It is important that the portrayal of power in historical perspectives in relation to Ma Rainey’s black bottom be done. The playwright credited with the making of this play concerned himself with issues afflicting blacks in the 1920’s and the play is a piece in his ten piece strong series depicting the afflictions of black people in the 1920’s. From this perspective, the power wielders in the play boil down to the white hegemony instituted over the blacks in the course of history and in the play itself. The representatives of this hegemony are the manager and the producer who manage to live better than Ma Rainey despite her being the creator of the product, Blues. The axial exploitation of the blacks at the apex apparent in the play inevitably runs down the rank to the bottom. The exploitation suffered by Ma Rainey reflects in her relations with the band members she employs. The indifference shown by the older band members such as Toledo and Cutler reveal the possible frustration they have suffered in an attempt at rising in the industry. The attempts of Levee at rising and creating his band, and the swiftness with which his attempt is crushed reveal this phenomenon.